Gamecraft

This blog is all about the craft of making games, and in particular, computer games. Gamecraft involves a broad range of topics, including design, development, quality control, packaging, marketing, management, and life experience.

Name: Gregg Seelhoff
Location: East Lansing, Michigan, United States

Sunday, April 16, 2006

MVP Backgammon Professional

This is not exactly a postmortem, but rather a memorial.

In early 2000, SophSoft began development of MVP Backgammon Professional for MVP Software. The beta testing began later that year and continued into 2001. Today is the fifth anniversary of our last beta build of the product, which is yet to be released, unfortunately.

It is certainly not unusual to have game projects cancelled and/or never released, but this was one of the best we developed to not see the light of day. To my knowledge, the game was never actually cancelled, just stalled for some reason. Several months later, communications with MVP Software failed and we parted ways. The breakdown did not appear to be limited to our product, however, as their web site has not changed since then, with one exception. Earlier this year, the technical support forum, which was the only real sign of life, was removed in favor of only providing email support.

Recently, I fired up MVP Backgammon Pro for the first time in quite a while, and the experience was strange. On one hand, playing the game again was inspiring. Everything about the game holds up really well, given the virtual dust that has had the chance to accumulate. All of the graphics and sounds are good, and the custom trained neural network plays a world class game of Backgammon, as well as Acey Deucey, a variant. There is also support for multiplayer games via network, modem, or serial cable. I had even forgotten how nice the checker animations looked.

On the other hand, it was slightly depressing to realize that this essentially complete game was never made available for purchase. Knowing approximate sales figures for its predecessor (through 2001, of course), I am confident that the game could have had total sales in the mid six figures (US dollars) by now. Five years ago, I was really only waiting to bump the version number to 1.0 and have it released; even the limited demo version was done. Over all these years, I have only found one minor bug, so it was basically ready to go.

The obvious question is why the game was not released, to which I was not given (and do not have) a clear answer. I know that there was the intention to connect MVP Backgammon Pro to their (still unfinished) game service, Classic Entertainment Online. I disagreed with that decision, arguing that the first version should be released without that feature, anticipating an upgrade (free) when CEO went online. In retrospect, I have to say that I was correct, since we could have had almost 5 years of sales at this point.

One can see our Current Projects preview page featuring MVP Backgammon, which contains screenshots and program artwork, as it existed in 2001. It is also still the top product on the MVP Software Coming Attractions page, listed as "Coming soon."

Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien. -- Voltaire

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Back in Business

Finally, business is starting to return to normal (busy) around here.

In the last couple of weeks, lots of things have been happening at SophSoft. The fruits of all of our efforts in the recent past will be revealed in time. Unfortunately, there is precious little that I can write about publicly yet, so here is a quick summary of recent events of interest.

Last Sunday, there was a chapter meeting of the Southern Michigan IGDA. This was a fairly busy meeting, including a presentation by Eric Arnold of Volition on the development of the multi-platform retail game, The Punisher, and a discussion and demonstration by Scott Brodie and Brandon Furtwangler of their IGF winner, Ballistic, which can be downloaded from the game website.

The meeting was at (nearby) Michigan State University this time, and one MSU student who probably should have been there was Lindsey Poisson. She wrote an insightful opinion piece about video games in The State News, the article having appeared in the previous Friday [April 7] edition of the paper.

This editorial follows on the (real) news that a federal judge has ruled that the new Michigan law restricting sales of video games to minors is unconstitutional and handed down a permanent injunction. You can read about the story on CNet and Gamasutra. Of course, our Governor is making noises about wasting more taxpayer money by challenging this ruling.

In response to the onslaught of attacks from state and federal legislators, the Video Game Voters Network was launched in March. Even though every piece of similar legislation so far has been ruled unconstitutional, it is unlikely that politicians will quit pandering (like prostitutes) to noisy fringe groups, stop the attacks on our industry, and start to focus on important issues, until we make ourselves heard. Speak up.

Of course, in addition to the political battles, there is also the legal front, and the Entertainment Software Association, among others, has done much to defend video games in court. Now, the ESA is suing the State of Illinois to recover legal costs in fighting the anti-game legislation that has since, unsurprisingly, been ruled unconstitutional as well. As I understand it, the basis for the lawsuit is, essentially, that Governor Blagojevich and others knew and accepted the ultimate outcome, but proceeded with the political exercise anyway. The Michigan Senate hearings that I attended included discussion of "skirting" the First Amendment here, so another suit would not surprise me.

Alas, it is difficult to keep track of the news about states jumping on the anti-game bandwagon (Maryland, Virginia, Missouri, Florida, Tennessee, Utah, Iowa, Indiana, to my recollection), so it is important to note that Georgia is offering tax incentives for video game development, following the lead of Louisiana, which created a successful program to attract game developers to that state.

Tomorrow, we will recognize an unusual game anniversary.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Federal Anti-Game Bill

Dateline: Washington, DC

In an emergency late night session, the United States Senate passed a bill significantly restricting the manufacturing and sales of most video games in this country. The bill, introduced by Senators Joseph Lieberman (D-Connecticut), Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-New York), and Evan Bayh (D-Indiana) was presented as an attempt to obviate the onslaught of similar legislation in various states.

The bill, known as the Bayh, Clinton and Lieberman Act, passed by a surprising vote of 58-42, split along party lines, with the three Democratic sponsors voting with the Republicans. Passage was not achieved without significant negotiation, however. Bill Frist (R-Tennessee) led a group of Republicans to insert language, dubbed the "Abramoff Amendment", which clarified that 'gaming' would not be covered by this 'game' bill. He also insisted on extending restrictions to cover game advertisements (the "Frist Amendment").

Supporters of the bill heralded its passage, while supporters of the First Amendment were strangely silent. In a press conference shortly after the vote, Clinton, Lieberman, Frist, and Senate President Pro Tem Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) addressed the weary press corps, each in turn describing the bill as "a victory of bipartisanship".

When asked about her political plans for 2008 and whether she felt that Sen. Lieberman's stand against video games cost Al Gore the Presidency in 2000, Clinton replied, "Video game players don't vote, and how much difference could 74 million Americans make, anyway?"

Lieberman quickly added, "That was all Tipper's fault," in an apparent reference to Tipper Gore's very public (and similar) attacks on rock and roll music in the 1980s.

Frist was questioned about the fact that games such as America's Army, used by the US Army for recruitment and training, would be outlawed, to which he responded that "We have already appropriated 250 billion dollars [$250,000,000,000] for the war in Iraq, and soldiers should be getting plenty of target practice there."

Stevens added, "If the Senate President [Vice President Dick Cheney] can find people to shoot domestically, then so can other Americans."

The Whitehouse confirmed that President Bush intends to sign the legislation when it reaches his desk, primarily because he lost his veto stamp shortly after his first inauguration. Whitehouse Press Secretary Scott McClellan indicated that Bush plans to attach a signing statement declaring that the act will not be interpreted to restrict any version of Whack-A-Mole, "'cause that's his favorite."

The House of Representatives is expected to bring the matter to the floor for a vote later today.